A story I couldn’t make up

A high school classmate of mine passed away suddenly over the weekend, and the shock of hearing this news made we want to do something. But the question is what, exactly?

My first instinct, in good times and in bad, is to look for a story to share. But the story I want to share about my departed classmate–who I will freely admit I didn’t know very well–forces me to go back to 1982, a year I wouldn’t relive for all the money in the world. But shock, and a sense of duty to those who knew him better than I did, is pushing me forward at this point, so here we go.

In the ten years that I’ve been putting this blog together, I’ve built up a digital library with thousands of images, some of which were cribbed from the internet, and some which are photos that I snapped of my old photos, with the hope of giving them new life on the internet. And try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anything else that I could reliably say was dated from 1982.

The blue zip-up sweat jacket that I’m wearing was something I got around the time that I graduated from grammar school and started high school. That kid, with the hair everywhere and the prescription glasses that changed color outdoors, will be the one who I’m channeling as I tell this story.

I had a growth spurt at the beginning of eighth grade, and in what felt like about a week I stood six feet tall and was more awkward than I had ever wanted to be. But as clumsy as I was, I still wanted to play on my school’s varsity basketball team. And unlike the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade versions of myself, the eighth grade me actually made it onto the team.

The problem, which quickly became apparent in our pre-season practices, is that while I was noticeably taller than most of my teammates, I lacked any real basketball talent. I also needed to wear glasses to see what was happening on the court, but wouldn’t wear anything to hold them on my face as I was playing. I chose the vanity of playing without glasses over the ability to see the court, or even to read the scoreboard. So I played on a very limited basis after the season started , and sometimes I never played at all.

The school that I played for, Christ the King elementary school, won most of our games pretty easily, but there was one other team, Blessed Sacrament elementary school, that gave us all we could handle. They had some very good players, including one guy named Mike who kept hitting long jumpshot after long jumpshot.

In 1982 there was no three-point shot in our league, which was the only thing that kept the score of that first game close. Several of the shots that Mike made that day would have been three-pointers, if only there had been such a thing.

There was a playoff series coming up at the end of the season, which I’m guessing was in March or April of 1982, but the Blessed Sacrament team laid down a marker against us during the regular season. The games were played in the gym of the high school that many of us would be attending in the fall of that year, so there really was no home-court advantage to speak of. And again that was a good thing, because they frankly outplayed us in the regular season.

Our first game came down to the last possession of the game, and they trailed by a single point but had the ball with a chance to win. Everyone in the gym that day knew who was going to get the ball and take the final shot. The only question was if it was going to go in to seal their victory, and hand us our first loss of the season.

Even though it’s nearly forty years later, I can still see that ball arching toward the basket as the buzzer went off. It hit against the backboard, then hit the front of the rim, and somehow bounced off. We jumped around in celebration, while Mike and his teammates hit the floor in shock. The line between victory and defeat rarely gets any thinner than it was on that day in the winter of early 1982.

But then the playoffs rolled around, and it seemed like we two teams were fated to have a rematch in the title game. The stars lined up as we expected, and the rematch was set for a Saturday afternoon in the same gym as before.

Again, I watched the game from the deepest reaches of my team’s bench. There wasn’t any way I was going to get in the game, but it was still my team and my school, and if I had to be an observer, so be it. I wanted to win that game as much as anybody else, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

The game see-sawed back and forth, and came down to a tie late in the fourth quarter. My team had the ball with one second left to go, and three-quarters of the court away from our own basket. As fate would have it, it was the exact same basket that the Blessed Sacrament team had been shooting at in our game during the regular season.

The best player on our team caught the ball and immediately heaved it at the basket. Again, it’s been nearly forty years since it happened, and I can still see the ball rising and falling through the air, and coming down with a swish that meant both of our seasons had come to an end.

In a repeat of our game from just a few weeks before, my team jumped around in celebration, while Mike and his teammates looked on in utter disbelief. It seemed as though the same basket had swatted their very makeable shot away, while allowing our totally implausible shot to break their hearts all over again. If I hadn’t witnessed it myself, I never would have believed it could happen.

I never discussed this crazy series of events with Mike, or anyone else on either team, because I didn’t feel that I had sufficient involvement with the outcome of the games. And now, all these years later, I wish I had done that. Not to be picking away at any old wounds, although it could very well have felt that way. But it would have been nice to remember an old battle, and to remind us all that win or lose, the sun always comes up the next day. Until one day, many years down the road, when it doesn’t.

On the first day of March in 2020, just a few days before the COVID pandemic brought all of our lives to a sudden halt, I was inside the old high school gym for a fundraising event. I looked up at the basket which had brought so much joy to one team, and so much heartbreak to the other one, and smiled at the memory. I’ll never know whether my classmate Mike Brahler ever did the same thing, but I thank him today for the memories that he forged, not quite forty years ago.

Godspeed, Mike.

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